I've just started reading Simon Reynolds' widely reviewed Retromania, and I can already see where I both agree and disgree with his argument.
His book valuably documents a phenomenon that's so pervasive you sometimes accept it without a second thought. That's the fact that everything from movies to ads to pop music (his focus) often seem like some sort of remake.
The retro has been embraced with such relish and abandon that Reynolds' wonders if, like oil or some other natural resource, we will soon run out of the past.
Boredom, of course, is often the result of all this repetition. Do we really need to see remakes of flicks like Friday the 13th or endless installments of Final Desitination? (Of course we do, if the we in question is a studio looking for a quick score, but that's another story...)
At the same time though, there's repeating and then there's repeating.
One of the things that's made pop and indie music listenable to me again is precisely the sophistication with which some artists now allude to past motifs and styles -- achieving an effect that makes the music simultaneously familiar, yet strangely original.
Much of the newer music (you can include varieties of jazz here too), informed by archives like YouTube and countless other sources, sounds more complex to my old ears -- simply because it seems to mix layers of music history together, and so speaks with a wider stylistic vocabulary.
As a result, when I listen to groups like Outcast, Gnarls Barkley, Fleet Foxes or MGMT, I hear more than I used to in older pop music.
Not ony that, but this knowing quality can make even nearly note-by-note tributes to the old sound fresh -- because the music is presented in a very different moment, one whose values and sense of style have little to do with the past.
See what you think. Here's an example of classic rock guitar maestro Jeff Beck teaming with the exciting, Dublin-based neo rockabilly singer Imelda May, doing a scrupulous rendition of Les Paul and Mary Ford's "How High the Moon." I've included a vintage Paul/Ford clip for comparision:
The Newness in Nostalgia
One of Reynolds' problems with all this "archive fever" is the fear that music is becoming so swallowed up in nostalgia, that it's difficult to make way for the new. Again, he's partly right.
When I hear the beautifully double-tracked vocals in both versions of "How High the Moon", I do get a nostalgic feeling. I associate this sound with the music tracks to cartoons and TV commercials I saw when I was very young. In my mind's eye, I even see a smiling moon dancing over a mountain.
On the other hand, the style of this music -- jazzy but pop (with a very light "Hit Parade" touch), is not something you hear a lot of on today's pop scene. Only artists with a sense of music history, like Jeff Beck and Imelda May, it seems to me, would even be hip enough to see that it was worth re-introducing.
And seeing as this is such an unfamiliar sound for today's context, isn't it essentially new (especially when presented by such stylish artists)? Might not awarenss of it lead to strange permutations, where this sound is recombined with something unexpected?
That's why what's been going on in pop music (and jazz) in the last few decades reminds me of something art historian Arthur Danto pointed to in painting and the fine arts way back in the 80s/90s.
Danto commented on how artists no longer paid attention to the Modernist narrative of "art's progress", where aesthetic style evolved to culminate in the triumph of abstract art. In the old orthodoxy, unless one showed allegiance to this tale, one would simply not be considered important.
Now, Danto wrote (back in the 90s), artists looked at the styles of the past and the museum itself "as filled not with dead art, but with living artistic options." As a result, the fine arts were flooded with a wild range of approaches, many of which departed from the austere abstract orthodoxy.
And as far as pop music goes, it's worth remembering that many creative breakthroughs arrive via a kind of revivalism. Wasn't Punk, for all its brash newness, also a return to rock's more stripped down, garage band sound? You could almost say it represented a renaissance of rock's minimalist side.
So before completely trashing the retro, we should be aware that repeating a part of the past -- or drawing attention to forgotten traditions -- can be a way of announcing something new. Thoughts?